I enjoyed everywhere I visited in Spain, but a few places definitely stand out to me. Deciding where to go in Spain is difficult simply because there are so many great places!
My complete 6-week road trip route is in this post, but if you have less time here for the places I urge you not to miss. If I were to go to Spain again, I would just go to these places and do day trips from them [I’ll add the link once I post this is more detail. In the meantime: Girona, Granada, and Picos de Europa or the Pyrenees for hiking].
Here is the list of towns and cities I stayed in and the link to the accommodation I used. However, keep in mind that I booked accommodation a few days in advance of our stay, so you can probably find more options in some places if you book further in advance. I booked everything on Airbnb and Booking.com. I only used Couchsurfing once, although I tried a couple of other times with no luck.
Our priorities in selecting accommodation were location and price, but a few times we splurged and paid 60 euros a night (usually closer to 40 euros): we liked parking the car upon arrival and walking or using public transportation in the city we were visiting. Many places have city center parking that is very limited and/or very expensive, plus we just like walking after long days in the car.
Wee-fee Spain is ok for wi-fi, but not great. I highly suggest that you confirm with any Airbnb or hotel that (1) it is in fact functioning, and; (2) the log-on information is available. Also, if you’re visiting in cold months, ensure you fully understand how to operate any heating systems.
My trip began and ended in Barcelona, but you can start the loop anywhere, such as Madrid or Granada. There are airports all over Spain, or you can enter overland from Portugal or France. Other options and add-ons:
- From Cangas de Onis continue west into the Galicia region (other food and language, more fish) and visit the end of the pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), in Santiago de Compostela.
- Visit Cordoba first, and then Granada. Then return to Barcelona via Valencia instead of Madrid.
- Extend to Malaga.
Map of Spain Route Road Trip
This map shows my route, but does not include all stops. I’ll list all stops here:
Barcelona (favorite tour)
I arrived by airplane in Barcelona, Spain and took the train from the airport to the city, since that’s the cheapest way to go. Then, I walked about 10 minutes to my Airbnb. This host is so friendly and helpful. He spoke English. Across the street is a great little butcher shop with tasty meats! Walk 20 minutes to Familia Sagrada. Buy a metro ticket for multiple rides, since it’s cheaper than buying many 1-pass tickets.
Upon my return to Barcelona at the end of my trip I stayed in a room in the fashionable El Born neighborhood. It was great being in the midst of lots of restaurants and the business of the city, but in a very quiet apartment (walk-up narrow stairs).
Pro Tip: There are tolls on the highways around Barcelona and they are not cheap! It was quite a shock when we arrived at a toll and owed 20 euros! The paid route is sometimes significantly faster. Check your route and the cost before starting, if you don’t want a shock. When you enter the paid section you stop to take a ticket from the machine. Then, you pay when you get close to your exit at a credit card / cash machine.
Barcelona is in the region of Catalonia. People speak Catalan in addition to Spanish, the food is Catalan.
Tour the Barcelona Fish Market
There’s a woman who gives a wonderfully informative 2-hour Fishermans tour on Airbnb Experiences where you learn all about the ecology, market, fishing regulations. She gave me great restaurant recommendations for seafood. (If you haven’t registered on Airbnb before, click here for a $40 credit). If you’re interested in local culture and history this is a great tour and was one of my top 3 favorite tours in Spain. You learn about the history of the city, too.
Girona – Best Old Quarter, Amazing Food
Drive about an hour from Barcelona through the countryside. I loved it here for the Old Quarter and many sights around the city. Girona has many Michelin starred restaurants, and even small places have great food. End of October is the town festival, which you shouldn’t miss! Human towers, fire parade, and lots more!
This area is also known for road biking, and there are many hills if you enjoy nature and hiking. If I was going to live in Spain, this would probably be my place. I stayed 3 nights and was reluctant to leave. The Airbnb hosts were great people and their child is very cute. The 2 guestrooms are on their own floor and share a bathroom.
Figueres – Salvador Dali Museum + Favorite Tour
Figueres isn’t cozy and cute like other places, but it has one of my favorite (top 3) day tours in the entire country at the Sant Ferran Castle. It also has the Salvador Dali Museum, which turned out to be just amazing! It’s unbelievable the variety of art he made. Since it’s a small but very dense museum it’s nice that there is a lovely garden patio with chairs and a fountain where you can relax for a bit.
The city is located 2 hours north of Barcelona, and we stayed here 2 nights in the cheapest hotel we could find.
Sant Ferran Castle Tour, Figueres
Two hours north of Barcelona, this castle tour takes you to the defensive tunnels in an open-top jeep and finishes with a boat ride in the massive underground water cistern. Reserve your tour in your preferred language in advance by phone.
The famous Salvador Dalí Museum is also in Figueres. Purchase your ticket online or at the ticket office in the morning, to avoid the ticket line later in the day.
Figueres 1 Day Itinerary
Wake up and get some coffee and pastry at a cafe. There are many cafes, so just check Google Maps to see what’s nearby.
Walk up the hill to your reserved castle tour (call ahead to reserve, since the tours are offered in various languages). Have fun in the jeep, exploring tunnels, and a boat ride in the underground aquifer! Spend another hour wandering the parts of the castle not visited during the tour. Enjoy a nice lunch at the castle cafe, or a bring a picnic and enjoy the nearby park. Alternatively, you can walk back into town for many restaurant options.
Walk downhill 15 minutes and spend the afternoon at the Dalí museum. There is the main museum and the jewelry museum. The main museum takes at least 2 hours if you want to really see everything. It’s worth it! This may be one of the coolest museums with just a single artist. I was unaware of the variety of art he produced, including painting, sculpture, drawing. You can also visit this museum as a day trip tour from Barcelona. The jewelry museum takes an hour at most to see everything since it’s small.
For dinner, prepare for a James Bond retro look. Save room for an amazing cheese plate or dessert cart at Hotel Empordà. We got a cheese plate and foodwise, this was one of the highlights of food during my entire Spain trip. The entire experience is singular– fantastic old school service. A soccer team was also eating dinner there and their table was filled with all kinds of amazing looking food and tons of wine.
Tip: Don’t order the pork trotters unless you know it’s something you’ll enjoy. It was the cheapest thing on the menu and we didn’t really know what it was. It turned out to be a plate of gelatinous fat and we struggled to eat it. Luckily the other dish we ordered was great!
Drive From Figueres to Vielha, Pyrenees Mountains
We made stops during this drive since it was a long driving day from the coast into the Pyrenees Mountains. The mountain road is winding and slow. These mountains separate France and Spain and contain the tiny country of Andorra. We didn’t have time to visit Andorra.
If you have more time, I definitely recommend you cross into France and visit the seaside town of Collioure. It’s touristic, but many artists lived here for the nice light and ambiance. I visited once many years ago and holds some of my favorite travel memories of food and friends.
Olive trees grow from the steep rocky hillsides along the road as you drive toward town. The whitewashed buildings stacked upon the cliffside and hilltop are photogenic. Park in the parking lot and wander the small pedestrian-only streets and stairs for a couple of hours. Eat lunch at a seaside restaurant if you have time.
This is a town where you could stay a night or two (or more!) and visit the surrounding area. If I had more time I would have! And, if an entire vacation home is in your budget, they look incredible!
Far del Cap de Creus (Lighthouse)
The wind here was extreme, and I could barely walk. There’s a restaurant here and I’d have loved to eat, but we already had lunch and had to get going. You can tell from the trees bent trunks that strong wind is normal here. The road in is picturesque. I loved it!
Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes
A mountaintop monastery with a gorgeous view! Far below is the sea and I imagine in the old days it was a many-hour walk from the seaside uphill all the way to the monastery. The road even today is steep and winding by car. There are tours of the monastery, but if you wander alone you need only 45 minutes in the building. You can also hike around the hillside, so plan for an extra hour if you’d like to walk.
Vielha – Hiking in the Pyrenees
After all the time spent in cities and towns, we wanted a day of hiking. We arrived in the evening and ate dinner a short walk away. Since it was off-season many places were closed in the area.
We stayed in Hotel Turrull which has parking across the street, wifi, and you can walk to restaurants and the supermarket in 5 minutes.
The next day we did a beautiful hike for a few hours. The mountain hut was unlocked, so we could eat our picnic lunch out of the cold and wind. During summer this area is known for hut-to-hut hiking and I would totally come back to do it! The views are unbelievable, and our hike wasn’t very steep or difficult.
We Couchsurfed here for a night since it would have been too long a drive to San Sebastian after our hike in the Pyrenees. It’s actually a great little city and has a nice church (or 10). We ate a lunch of tapas at Tasca de Ana bar restaurant as recommended by our host. Get there right when they open, since the small place fills up fast!
There is plenty to do in town, but we didn’t have time to see very much since we departed soon after lunch. There are plenty of reasonably priced hotels.
We drove to the San Juan de la Peña monastery, which is built into a cave. And, it’s got quite a history that’s very interesting. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Since we were there on a rainy weekday we could park the car just down the road. However, during high season you have to park some distance away and get on a shuttle bus to come to the monastery.
In Pamplona, we parked beside the giant bullring where the Running of the Bulls ends, famous for Ernest Hemingway’s book. At this point in our trip, we have seen a lot of churches and were a bit city-ied out. We had a late-morning pastry and coffee at a cafe and walked around a bit. The rain was drizzling and the bullring entrance cost more than we wanted to pay, especially since although we’re interested in the culture we don’t want to promote animal cruelty by paying money toward it.
We got back in our little car and drove on.
We stayed one night near Pamplona in an Airbnb. The art and furniture in the room are from a castle his family sold due to the high costs of maintenance.
San Sebastian for Pintxos (so delicious!)
San Sebastian is in Basque Country. The language is totally different from any romantic language, and the food it is known for is pintxos (pron. peen-choss). These are small snacks, similar to tapas, except they are generally skewered. You get a plate and pick your own off the counter at some places. At other places, you are served. The food itself is often original, as all the pintxo places compete to come up with new concepts and flavors.
Also, the wine is great here. So, get into a place in the evening and get your drink and pintxo. Then, move onto the next place for another drink and pintxo. Weekend nights are the most active and many are filled with locals and tourists alike. Our Airbnb host recommended us a mussel place that was great and had almost no tourists: La Mejillonera, Calle del Puerto. You can find out about many more places online or in any guidebook. They are totally walkable within a few blocks. You can also stop in some big churches.
We didn’t love our Airbnb here since overall it was only a cheap place for sleeping for 3 nights. The hosts had the tv on all the time and we could hear it in our room. Also, there was no comfortable place I could work on my laptop, except sitting on my bed. And, we could barely use the kitchen even to eat breakfast. It was just too little space in my opinion.
If you’re a beach person here in summer you could stay forever. In gray, slightly rainy, autumn weather no one was on the cold beach and the city didn’t have much new for us to see. We did visit the closed fairground up the hill from the beach for a couple of hours.
Bilbao – Guggenheim Museum
We stopped at the extraordinarily Saint Telmo Chapel on the way to Bilbao. It’s a great little break on the drive.
In Bilbao, our Airbnb was inexpensive and huge! 3 bedrooms, washing machine, balcony. What a difference it makes going to a less touristic place. Our host even found us a free parking spot for the car– confirm this in advance as street parking is expensive here.
We spent the next day at the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum a 10-minute walk away. It was great! If you’ve been to the San Francisco MOMA (Museum of Modern Art in S.F., California) you may recognize a one or two of the artists. We spent several hours here. It was raining here, and when traveling it’s nice to pace yourself, so we rested and made dinner in our kitchen. Restaurants in this area seemed expensive.
Pro Tip: Save money by preparing some of your own food. Here are the items you’ll need, and you can bring some of them from home: Knife and small cutting board (you can’t fly with a knife in carryon luggage). Collapsible bowls and takeout silverware (or a spork) you receive free during your trip (or buy, if needed). Olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper (check out this travel container– super handy!) for salad/sandwich dressing. As needed buy fresh items like lettuce, tomato, sausage, cheese, bread, and wine, beer, and juice. Even without a kitchen, we made salad and sandwiches on the hotel desk and kitchen sink. We usually did this for dinner, since that’s the most expensive meal of the day. You can also buy bread, jam, coffee, and more to save on breakfast costs.
Drive from Bilbao to Picos de Europa Mountains
Wow! I did not expect it to be so great! We stopped several places, and the rain had stopped.
Altamira Cave – Ancient Cave Paintings
This place was one of my favorite stops in Spain. I wasn’t expecting much since you go in a replica of Altamira Cave. The original cave is mostly closed to the public now since it’s had to be cleaned from all the cigarette smoke and other damage done in past years by tourists (this was a theme of many enclosed spaces I visited around Spain). A few people are permitted into the actual cave through a lottery held once a week.
The replica cave is amazing! I’ve been in plenty of caves since spelunking is one of my hobbies at home, and the replica seemed completely real. The replica paintings were made using the same techniques as the originals. Tourists enter through timed entry (your ticket has the time) in groups. If you have questions, just stay in the cave a little longer– a cave expert is there and you can talk to them.
Nearby is an ancient village where you can stay the night called Santillana. It seems very touristy, but also very scenic. If we had more time I’d have stayed here, but we only had time for lunch. Have a peek at the hotels in Santillana del Mar to get an idea of the beautiful cobblestone streets!
The Cantabrian Coast – Gorgeous Scenery
If you aren’t familiar with Cantabria you are in for a treat! The coastline is beautiful, and there are some really cool sights along the way. Stop at the Cementerio Ruta Modernista! You’ll see it from the road– that’s how we discovered it. Just pull over on the side of the road, where there is plenty of space to park. Plan on 15 to 30 minutes to wander the sculptures in the cemetery within oceanside view. I wouldn’t mind being buried here! If you need a snack, stop by Carniceria Ramon for some meat. This church wasn’t open when we stopped by, unfortunately: Capilla Panteón de los Marqueses de Comillas.
We didn’t have time for more stops today, but these places in San Vicente de la Barquera look nice!
- Torre del Preboste
- Castillo del Rey
Picos de Europa – Hiking!
We stayed at an Airbnb cow farm hosted by a family from Madrid. They wanted to get their kids out of the city, so bought a cow farm and moved here. They told us some of the lessons they’d learned about cows and the countryside. They’d had a really friendly young female cow and regretted selling her since a friendly cow is a benefit when she has babies.
We stayed 2 nights at this Airbnb. Reserve one more night than you expect to want (at least!). There’s plenty to see and do in the area and the food is delicious in the Asturias region.
Cangas de Onis – Hike Cares Gorge (amazing views)
The town of Cangas de Onis is really cute and nice for relaxing on a sunny day. The old bridge over the river is scenic. The restaurant that came highly recommended for Asturian food is La Madreñeria. Cider is a thing here, so be sure to order a glass! They pour it in the traditional way, from high up and just a little at a time, since you have to drink it quickly.
Hiking Cares Gorge in Picos de Europa is a must!! It’s some of the most beautiful and unique scenery I’ve ever hiked through with sharp, bare rock peaks. Pass through tunnels, see sheep grazing, and walk on the occasional bridge. Look up at the steep mountains or down into the steep, deep gorge. Later when I was at El Prado museum in Madrid I saw a painting of mountains and said to myself, “If that isn’t Picos de Europa….” And, it was! There are actually many hikes in this area, including hut-to-hut routes that would be fantastic in warm weather. However, there’s no little shade on any of the hikes I did or saw.
Zamora – Hidden Gem!
A hidden gem! I don’t know why no one recommended it to me when I was researching Spain, but it worked out as a good place to spend a couple of nights en route south. Schedule for a full day here (not a Monday or Tuesday when many of the sights are closed). Upon arrival, your hotel (or stop by the tourism office) should give you a print-out of the current schedule of open times of the many churches and museums, including the free hours and days. This website has some of them.
When out to eat, try the wine from the nearby Duero river valley. It’s so good! I tried to go wine tasting one day, but the wineries are small, so it seems you really should try to go on an organized wine tasting tour. I didn’t take this tour, but it looks good. I haven’t seen a tour that’s only to wineries– they all seem to be full day tours including lunch and historical sights.
The hotel I selected for Zamora turned out great! Our room was a bit cramped for 2 people and the bathroom made us laugh. It was huge, but the toilet was jammed into a corner between the spacious bathtub and the sink. I could actually wash my hands while sitting on the toilet if I’d wanted. And, we had to sit on the toilet nearly sideways, since the sink was in the way of our knees. Whoever made this bathroom was crazy!
The cool thing about our room was that it was right next to the old Jewish bath. The hotel is built upon Jewish ruins, and you wouldn’t know the bath was there if we didn’t have that room. No other hotel rooms pass by the bath. The hotel has a nice patio where you can read a book from the shelf in the lobby. There’s also an outdoor patio on the roof that would be nice in the warm weather.
Seville – Favorite Tour
You might hear about the huge central cathedral (largest in Europe when it was built). The audio tour device is alright, but you MUST do the Tour de los techos, which is the Tour of the Roofs (available in several languages). Pay for it with your entry ticket at the front door. It’s amazing! The guide is an expert in history and architecture and you go places where only the guided tours go. Regular tours (not by the museum) stay on the ground floor, but this tour takes you up narrow spiral staircases where you learn to see the signatures of the stonemasons, and onto the cathedral roof where you walk under and around flying buttresses and try not to trip on the mushrooms covering the holes used for pulleys when the chandeliers and massive paintings were installed in the 1400’s.
The rest of our day was free– walking the small Jewish quarter and the riverside promenade where we saw groups of friends playing guitars and dancing Flamenco.
Our Airbnb was great! I’ve never seen one like this, but the concept is perfect for tourists. In my room, there was a booklet made by an agency that seems to also handle the online booking process for our hosts. The booklet had map printouts and a listing of recommended restaurants and sights around the city. It was basically a mini guidebook. Our hosts were so friendly and helpful (useful if you speak Spanish) and suggested a restaurant for a wonderful dinner just a block away and a wonderful churro shop for breakfast. We spent 2 nights here to allow for a full day in the city.
Salamanca – Worth A Day Trip Or Longer
This university city is super fun! We only spent a few hours here, but I felt I could have stayed and wandered for a few days. Definitely, eat a meal (or at least a snack) at Bambú and get their award winning dish that looks like an egg in a nest. It’s so good! Also, walk around– the university is very old and the inside is really beautiful. You have to pay to enter the museum area, but the student classroom area is free and beautiful, too. Also, don’t miss the Catedral de Salamanca and the Casa de las Conchas.
Mérida – Best Place for Roman History
This is the best place for Roman history buffs of all the places I visited in Spain. A Roman theater and forum, an Alcazaba (Moorish place), aqueducts, and much more! I loved the amazing mosaics at Casa del Mitreo. On our full day, we did many sights by walking on foot. On our 2nd morning, we visited the Circo and the aqueduct before departing.
We booked what we thought was an apartment on Booking.com, and learned a lesson in reading the fine print more carefully. First, it turned out we had to pick up and drop off the keys from a hotel a 5-minute drive away. Second, it was an apartment with 3 rooms and no host (operated by a corporation, I suppose). We had 1 room, but another person was staying in one of the other rooms, so it wasn’t our own apartment after all. Third, when it cooled down at night we tried to figure out how to turn on the heater. We called the telephone contact, but they didn’t know anything about how to control the heater, and it was really cold! The next day, maintenance ‘fixed’ the heating situation by providing us the remote control to the device on the ceiling. Booking.com refunded us the first night for the lack of heating.
Ronda – The Gorge-ous Town
We stayed several days here. We had a rest day in town and a day driving out to other Pueblos Blancos for which this hot, dry area is known. We stayed in the Old Town section, so we could easily walk around. However, we had to park far from our Airbnb (no longer listed on the website), so you could really stay anywhere in the city. The most interesting historic things in Ronda can be seen in a half-day walk.
The other pueblos blancos are nice, but all are at least somewhat touristy and you could rent an apartment at any of them– we went on a fun hike at one. My favorite was Setenil de la bodegas (here are the available hotels). Many homes and business are built into the stone hillsides. It’s hot in summer, so cave-like homes stay cool.
Torcal de Antequera
A park in the mountains where you can see fossils of sea animals that were previously submerged. The rock formations are really cool. You can walk trails independently for free. I opted for the paid tour, because they take you to see the bigger fossils.
You need a car to get here and there’s a nice town nearby if you’d like to stay the night.
Granada For A Week
The first few nights my travel buddy and I stayed in the small town of Monochil, which has the hike with hanging bridges! We went hiking twice since it was so fun! I can’t recommend staying in this Airbnb when nights are cold, as it takes a long time to warm up the home with the fireplace– every morning eating breakfast was soooo cold! However, it gets lots of good recommendations from other people.
We also went to La Alhambra in Granada for a day, which is about 45 minutes away by bus, and then you can walk the rest of the way. Read this post for my exact recommendations on what to do at La Alhambra, what ticket to buy, and more.
After my travel buddy took the car and returned to Barcelona, I settled into a room in an apartment in Granada for a week, which was disorganized (the host didn’t get the Wifi working until I told her I would report to Airbnb so I could change accommodation, among other issues). I found a favorite tapas bar where I went each evening for drinks and dinner. I went to La Alhambra a couple more times, and wandered the streets and saw all the sights.
Cordoba For A Week
I also wanted to visit Córdoba, so then I stayed there for a week. I learned all the curvy, winding streets near my accommodation + found there was plenty to keep me busy each day. Read my post on everything I did there.
My Airbnb here was great! Just across the street from La Mezquita and the price was very reasonable.
Madrid for 2 nights
I took the bus to Madrid. My Airbnb host was great! very friendly and helpful and nice. If I lived in Madrid I’d have friends like her. Museums have free hours, so research whichever ones you’re interested in. My first night I went to see Guernica by Picasso at the Museo Reina Sofia (free entry). The next day I paid entry to El Prado National Museum. There is some amazing stuff in there! They don’t let you take photos at all, once you pass the lobby, which was typical of Spanish museums.
From Madrid I returned to Barcelona.